Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor
Edward M. Block was Senior Vice President -- Public Relations, Advertising and Employee Information for the AT&T Corporation for 12 years until his retirement in 1986. He was responsible for corporate communications during AT&T's historic divestiture of the Bell telephone companies and its expansion into international markets. He also held the additional post of assistant to the chairman of the board from 1980 until his retirement and was a member of the Office of the Chairman.
While at AT&T, Block was a director of AT&T International and AT&T Information Systems. He established the AT&T Foundation and was its first chairman of the board. It was on his initiative that AT&T provided the funding ($10 million a year for five years) to establish the MacNiel-Lehrer News Hour on PBS.
In 1980, PR News chose Block as the Public Relations Professional of the Year. In 1993, he received the lifetime achievement award from Inside PR and also, the Hall of Fame Award of the Arthur W, Page Society. In 1997, he received the Gold Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America. Most recently, he was cited by PR Week as one of the 100 most influential public relations people of the 20th century.
Foster: Did you really?
Block: That weekend.
Block: 4,000, so anyway, you know lesson number one if you got a story with that kind of impact, it’s just, you have to find some way to tell the story one time, one place, or you’ll have a train wreck on your hands.
Block: And we were able to do that. I think another lesson. you inferred this earlier, but the, the my boss Charles Brown but the whole top management at AT&T and the Board of Directors, what we were able to do was really a credit to the public relations department, not to me personally. But to the PR department, that we presented a plan to announce that thing to the whole top management, all the CEOs of the Bell companies to our own board of directors and you know thinking back on it later I thought to myself. That’s amazing that no one said you’re not going to bring in an agency to do this or let me tell me that again. I don’t like that you know and blah, blah, blah. They all just said great plan, and that was so. And the third thing I think, Larry, is well, I did the plan in two days because of the danger of leaks. At least I had an opportunity to think it through. I mean it didn’t come flying in over the transom as it so often happens to chief public relations officers. That they don’t know until the last minute. I was in on it from the first minute. That made a huge difference. And we were also able to mobilize not only the chairman of the board as the principle spokespersons but person, but we were fortunate that we had a president, Bill Ellinghaus, you know him well. And two vice chairs, who were very polished with the news media, and they were good at it. So I was able to give them the talking points and so in fielding those, and by the way we all lived in our office building through that whole weekend, so it was impressive to a reporter who calls in and we say do you want to talk to Charlie Brown? Hang on a minute. Press the button, he’s on the line. And Bill Ellinghaus, and what not. So we had four really good authoritative spokesmen and of course all the rest of us ink-stained wretches in the PR department who could, you know could handle whatever came in and we did augment our media relations group by hand picking people elsewhere who might have been on jobs elsewhere in the public relations department, but had plenty of experience. So, we were able to get through that weekend and the last thing I, in anticipating this train wreck or this media frenzy, I wrote an ad, a full page ad to run in the morning papers the next day, all the metropolitan papers in the United States, and I did that for fear that the story would not come out as clearly and as accurately as it did. And we, we hired different financial print shops in New York City, gave them each a paragraph or two of the ad so no one ever saw the whole ad, and then we had individuals get on airplanes and fly out to the markets and deliver the ad to newspapers. Well it turned out that the reporters got it right and got it straight and that really was superfluous. The other thing I think we did maybe not everybody who ever listens to this will have the same thing, but in a company that has a lot of different divisions and business units and what not, we, we call the presidents of the Bell companies into New York or New Jersey and I took them through the plant and Howard Trienens took them through the steps in the courthouse. And I asked each of them as soon as we had made the announcement to have their own press conference in their headquarters city, because they had the employees; they were theirs, not ours. They had the customers. They were not AT&T headquarters customers, they were the Bell customers, and but one exception, not one of those CEOs freelanced or made a boo-boo. I sent them a packet by courier the night before with everything they needed for a press conference and they had the conferences at noon the next day, and that helped a lot, because they were talking to their customers. They were talking to their employees, and they were talking to the news media that covered their company. And I think that sometimes we forget to do I don’t know whether it was me who thought of that or somebody else. But sometime we forget, thinking well the whole show is the chairman of the board. Well it’s not. If you are a big company with a lot of people scattered all over the place, employees and customers, it’s, it’s important to have the person they look to as the head guy, not the chairman of the board of the holding company.
Foster: Ed before we jump to the beginning of the Page Society which I want your version of it. Let’s give a capsule summary of Page. He didn’t finish his career at AT&T, he went on to other things, and he became a counselor and to the White House…
Foster: … and Truman I think he worked closely with …
Block: … he this is probably, I’m chastised from time to time for saying this or pointing this out, like it’s a great triumph, but the fact of the matter is that he was called down to the White House to write the announcement about the atomic bomb. But he …
Foster: … the dropping of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki…
Block: … Truman’s explanation, yeah, but he was a familiar figure under many presidents at the White House, as a free advisor, you know like every White House has, its kitchen cabinet as they say. And he was one of those people. He did, when he took his retirement at AT&T, he had been on the Board since some time in the early ‘30s I think, so he remained on the Board for a couple of years, and did some, some for hire counseling. He also was on the Boards of three other corporations, that Chase Manhattan Bank was one of them, so he was, well you know, well known in the corporate world and he also, his one of for a guy that made Cs at you know, gentlemen Cs, at Harvard he was very interested in education and was in very much involved with the Teachers College at Columbia University, and with Columbia itself so he had a wide ranging intellect.
Foster: Very career, but it was pretty much channeled in policy writing and…
Block: … he was the go-to guy, he was the wise man.
Foster: Ed, the Page Society the Arthur Page Society did not get formed until the mid ‘80s. I want to know, and I’m sure our viewers do, how that came about. Page had long since left AT&T. What was the motivation? What was the driving force and the inspiration that, in the mid ‘80s, prompted you and I believe Jack Koten and a few others to form the Page Society.
Block: Yeah well let me take one small step backward from that. One of my early bosses is the one who introduced me to Arthur Page. He had some of his letters and memos and what not and I thought ah ha, this is, this is golden stuff. I mean, all these things that we do around here in the name of public relations, which I hadn’t given any thought to who thought them up or where they came from. Suddenly, I find out there’s a person and his name is Arthur Page, and he instituted most of these things. So then, I started looking for more Page writings and began to collect them myself. And as the word got around, I was doing this, this was very early in my career, but people would send me stuff, you know that they had in their personal files and what not. So somewhere, I think it was about the time that I was vice president of Illinois Bell in Chicago and I had been making many talks to the public relations department and in management meetings out in Chicago, about Arthur Page. And he was as much a mystery to other people, I mean he had come and gone and he had institutionalized all this stuff that we were doing, but very few people were around who really knew there was such a guy. So I thought, you know, I think we need a patron saint you know so let’s resurrect Page. And so Jack Koten was working with me in Chicago at the time and we instituted Arthur Page Awards for, in different categories, annual awards for employees in the PR department who did a job that was an excellent reflection of Page principles, as they came to be called. So that was number one. Then, when I moved from that job to the head job at AT&T, we made that a national award. So okay, so that’s, so we had something going in the name of Arthur Page. Then at the time of the break up, the Bell break up, the last meeting that we had of the, it was an old tradition of the vice presidents, public relations in all the major Bell Companies came together in a conference, sponsored by the AT&T vice president. So one of the people in that conference said. You know this is a sad day. This is the last time we’ll be together. So let’s form an Arthur Page Society. Now, what he had in mind was some place to go play golf, and lie to each other, tell stories. So, so this particular fellow, he incorporated. I mean with the consent of everybody, but he incorporated the Page Society and that’s kind of what it was for.
Foster: That’s how it got started?
Block: As a Bell alumni association, but it was Jack Koten who was the first to recognize and say persistently, this has no future. What there is a need for, is an organization for chief public relations officers who view their jobs as Arthur Page did his, as counselors and …
Foster: … from various companies.
Block: … and various companies. So then, with probably chutzpah than reality would have suggested we incorporated it and opened the membership up and that led me to one Lawrence G. Foster to say that to give this outfit any credibility we need a president of the Page Society who is not a former Bell Telephone guy. And you generously agreed and that’s what turned the big corner for the Page Society and it lost its beginnings as an alumni association and became a serious…
Foster: … yeah that took place, well, you made your sale and I wasn’t too reluctant because I recognized the importance of the Page Society, of what it could be.
Block: We knew each other well.
Foster: And we knew each other well. You’re a tough guy to turn down anyway. But ‘90…
Block: Nice person. It works the other way too.
Foster: … the other way right exactly. ‘90 to ’92, those two years and what we did was we went out and we went to the top PR people in the country and said the Arthur Page Society is, was, born and bred in the Bell System, but now we’re expanding it nationally and opening it up to other countries, companies, and would you join and be a part of it? I can’t remember a single turn down. The top people in the country, in our business, public relations, wanted to be a part of it.
Block: Yeah there is nothing, there is still nothing quite like it, exists as you know there was another organization that you were also president of. It was a once a year conference of top PR people, that it was called the Public Relations Seminar, and you were also president of that.
Foster: No actually…
Block: You were not?
Foster: No, I headed Wise Men in New York, but not the Seminar.
Block: Well ,see what happens to an old man’s brain. I don’t remember everything accurately. Anyway I think it was not. If Larry Foster called you up and said you ought to join the Page Society, a lot of people said well if he thinks it’s good, I ought to join. But the other part, I think, was it does fill a need for many, not all the chief public relations officers, more so than the seminar or any other organization, because it operates its issues focused, and it operates at the intersection of the CEO’s job and the chief public relations officers job, that’s the focus of the conferences.
Foster: And it has become, over the years, the most prestigious public relations organization in the country.
Foster: With now, I think, what? 330 senior level people, but the program boggles my mind, the programs that they have been able to put together. What we were doing is out selling people to join, they have created a very sophisticated agenda.
Block: Absolutely. I mean, it’s for most senior PR people, it’s a must be there organization.
Foster: Let me jump quickly to another subject. Values - the subject of integrity. A responsibility truth telling and give me our view of what is needed in those areas and I know here at the Page Center which is why we’re gathering at Penn State at this time. The Board of the Page Center, trying to figure out how best to carry out our responsibility and to elevate the Page Center to an even higher standard. But give me off the cuff thoughts about values, responsibility, and integrity. What do you think about when you focus on those issues?
Block: Well I’m going to come at that question from a couple different angles. One is that, public relations as a skill set, if you want to call it that has grown enormously. And it has morphed into communications communicator and I think my idea of integrity and values and what not, has to do with the counseling function. Not as the resident Saint, for goodness sakes, but to be in that policy-making loop that includes the communication of policy but also the making of policy. So, I think from my mind, the big role that the Communications School at Penn State is going to play in locating the Page Center here, is that I think a prestigious academic institution that gives you great leverage, and gives you the right to talk about integrity and ethics. And so I think that, that the Center here at Penn State, the Page Center, can be enormously influential. Now as to, you know, what is integrity and how you do it and the business we’re all in and that sort of thing which my hope will be the output the “how to’s” will come out of the Page Center as well. But to my mind, it’s, it’s pretty easy to think in terms of, of some old fashioned horse sense. Companies that do right do better. I mean that’s been documented through almost a century now, and it’s not when I say do better meaning their bottom line they make money for the shareholders and they do it consistently which is really important, not in peaks and valleys so that’s kind of a glib way to say it but the ones who do right, do better, but it’s documented. The other thing is there’s some simple rules and they pretty much come out of the Page Principles but they are, you know, other people have said them in other language and using other words. The new hot button, as you know, is transparency. Well that had old-fashioned meanings, but it meant you know, all business in a democratic society, blah, blah, blah, you know. Your customers, your shareholders, your constituencies have a right to get an explanation of what you’re doing when they want an explanation. So you know what’s so magic about that. And yet we have gotten away from it too much, I think, in modern times where the, it’s almost as though slickness of communications will pull you through. You know, whether it’s marketing or whatever. It’s in PR and we know it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You may get away with it for a little while but you know sooner or later you are going to slip on a banana peel if it’s not real. So it’s telling the truth. It’s being upfront with your employees, with your shareholders. Employees by the way, you know this from your J & J days, and I know this. The first people who know that the emperor has no clothes are the employees. And once they decide that, it’s down hill, because they will let that be known to everybody. So if you are a company that employs a lot of people, the transparency thing, the upfront thing really you I think you build it off of your internal, internal communications.
Foster: The person in charge of public relations for the company, the person who has access to the chairman, they are in a wonderful position to be the reminder, to be the keeper of the principles that the company is striving for, right?
Block: Absolutely. And I think a friend of mine by the name of Larry Foster used to talk about that a lot. That the, the chief public relations officer, by whatever title, is the only one in the top echelon of senior management whose job it is to think like the CEO would think. The others whether it’s chief financial officer or chief marketing officer or whatever, are advocates, as they should be of what they’re doing. And you and I know that in some of the discussions, we called it the “office of the chairman” but the executive committee whatever the problem in making bad decisions and opportunity to make good decisions is not a matter that you got a bunch of crooks in the room who all want to do something bad. It isn’t that. You are trying to thrash out a strategy, or a decision, or a way to present a decision, and so it’s not people sitting around a table trying to figure out how to get by with something, it’s people advocating different solutions to the same problem from their point of view. And the one person in the room who can be useful to the CEO is the chief public relations officer, because he’s not, he or she is not invested in any of those advocacy positions at all, and also, as you know and I certainly know often times the chairman needs someone in that room who will speak the unspeakable, you know and say you can’t do that. You can’t do that. Okay it’s going to cost us some money to not do that or whatever the implications are, but and the chairman in many cases he knew that all along, he just wanted somebody in the room to say to say it, and then he can say well, I agree. 12.
Foster: Ed, Cinda Kostyak and her associate put together some very interesting questions for this interview. One had to do with today’s role of the public relations executive, as opposed to the way it was when you were reigning in your job at AT&T. Would you like to comment on that? What you know, there’s been a lot of changes, so many have changed to communications and the advisor role has diminished. What’s your view on that?
Block: Well I can give you impressions. Obviously I’m retired and so perhaps can take what I say with a grain of salt as we used to say, but oh, first of all, the field of corporate public relations, business public relations, is clearly far, far more complex today than it ever was before and continues to become more so. And that’s had one, on the one side, I suppose it’s good for jobs in the field and the kinds of work that you have an opportunity to do wasn’t’ there before. But the dark side of that to me, is that it is distracting from what the core notions that public relations were in our day, so in our predecessors, because it was much more the counseling, counseling function as really a continuing day to day job. And now you have marketing communications and you have all kinds of communications.
You know, I’m waiting to see in the Wall Street Journal any day now it’s going to say how somebody’s been has been elected vice president, blogs you know, and but you’ve got the whole Internet stuff. The skills necessary to keep a fresh website and or websites. So it’s really stretched but in the stretching I think some of the core benefits – values, not as a moral thing but values in terms of the corporation getting what it is paying for, are lost when too many people in the public relations organization, including the chief, are spending too much time doing other things. Now, another piece that I think has made the job more, more difficult, is the globalization. When you’re trying to be a counselor in a cross-cultural environment, it probably can’t be done without, without a lot of help or a lot of associate counselors. But in any case, in the customer base, tends to be different. The CEO’s travel schedule is double the monster it was when you and I were there. So I think some of my impressions are yes, it’s changed vastly. It continues to change. I want to see it come back with a little more emphasis on the counseling function without, you know, without necessarily giving up some of these other functions. I do think in some PR departments there are too many functions that really don’t need to be there. I mean, they’re there because it makes a great looking organizational chart, you know, but it’s not anybody else can do some of those things, or they could be done somewhere else. Also, the decentralization has been another problem for, for the CEO’s advisor by whatever title, because you have these very large discrete and rather independent business units, that really are in business for themselves. I mean too much so, I always marveled at General Electric. How could they do such a good job, which they have mainly done through the years of, of a coherent face to the public and a definable character? You know when you are building jet engines. You are building, you are building refrigerators, light bulbs, medical imaging, locomotives; you know that’s quite a feat. You know because those, those businesses really don’t for the most part have any overlap. I mean they are different industries you know. And yet General Electric has been able to be GE.
Foster: So you have companies that have become infinitely more complex and you have public relations vice presidents who have a lot of eggs in their basket. Some of which probably shouldn’t be there because if you are going to sit on that basket, and keep track of all that’s going on, you don’t really have time to spend with the CEO in an advisory capacity.
Foster: And then you have the situation of the CEO who might have been weaned away from the counseling and is either getting it elsewhere …
Block: … find someone else.
Foster: … or not getting the counseling that he should. Some of them, major headline stories that we’ve all suffered through in recent years, you rarely find the public relations person having had a culpable role in those situations. Enron. Did you find it that way too?
Foster: That they weren’t among the …
Block: They weren’t in the loop.
Foster: … indictee or they weren’t.
Block: they weren’t indicted. Yes that’s good.
Foster: That’s a positive.
Block: But they weren’t in the loop.
Foster: They weren’t in the loop, yeah.
Block: I just, you know another thing in talking about this basket of eggs that a chief PR officer has to deal with, and pulling that person away from the other job. The same executive that laid the one on me about this is run like a mom and pop corporation, another canny thing that he said to me in a whole different context, different situation, he said when he was, then in this episode, he was assistant to the chairman which is a job when he retired that I took on in addition to the PR job. But he said, when people ask me what I do he said what I do, I am paid. I am paid to think about things the chairman of the board doesn’t have time to think about. Meaning that the CEO was pulled and tugged here and there, and there are so many balls in the air and there are potential problems down the road, and what he was saying is that I have the luxury of seeing the world through the lens of a CEO, my boss. But I have the luxury of being able to think ahead about things that he needs to be aware of, and I’m not talking about crises, but just things that he needs to be aware of, and plan for, we planned for it together. And I thought that was a pretty good way to put it, so if you’re, you don’t need to have a separate job, but assistant chairman of the Board. I’m not arguing for that but if that’s in the chief public relations officer portfolio and it should be, don’t let it get crowded out. You know and I think that’s part of what happens or has happened and also the CEO’s job changed. And, and I’m happy to say now that I’m encouraged that it sort of changing back again with some of the new breed of CEOs, but what also happened along the way was that in too many cases, the CEO became the chief salesman to Wall Street.
Block: Every 90 days, and …
Foster: Trying to meet the quarterly.
Block: Yes. And so the CEOs also got off the rails, in many cases. And but as I said I’m somewhat encouraged. Some of the new ones that have come in on the scene, some in the wake of scandals, and some not, seem to be a different breed. That they are, they are running the business and therefore they are open to, to the kind of PR person that we’ve been talking about here to help, help provide the counsel to run the business. These, there are two, I probably here shouldn’t get into the books, but there was about three years ago a wonderful book called Execution written by the CEO I think, what used to be Allied Corporation, Allied Bendix is it? (AlliedSignal Corporation – Larry Bossidy), or something like that. And he, he straightened that company out one time and then he retired, and it went off the rails and they brought him back. This book was the piece about that. And he said, he said when I came back he said everybody was rushing around going to conferences and meetings and there were these big charts up on the walls and all these new opportunities, and he said, I looked at that and said. Stop it, we have a business plan, execute it. Do it. You know and we’ll change it when we need to. And so what I see in some of the new ones I’m thinking about, the new CEO of Hewlett Packard and others that are picking up on the fact that, that when you get too big in the head, when you’re, when you’re salary or your compensation is what most people know about the company. You are headed for trouble. And what you need are executives with a longer-term view, and executives who, who know where they want to take the business. And it’s not down to Wall Street. You know.
Foster: Right there’s another aspect that we haven’t touched on and that is the personal relationship between the CEO and someone who is aspiring to be a counselor and my advice on that would be if, if you sense that the CEO doesn’t really like you like you or if you always seem to be on divergent path it’s time to look for another job. Ed I
Block: By the way just a footnote on that. The counselor, one piece of a good counselor’s character, you have it. I think I had it, is humility. I mean, understand my job is different from the CEOs job.
Foster: Well, I always knew who was CEO. but I get low marks on humility, I’m afraid. I, unless my interpretation is different than yours, but Ed, there’s no lack of humility sitting here listening to one of the outstanding legends, if I might use that term, in the field. It’s been 40 some odd years that we’ve known and worked together. It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to conduct this interview and I hope that in the years to come as Cinda and her staff and crew repeat this interview, that they will learn from you as I have through the years.
Block: Well I share that our legacies will follow to other generations, but I bring that up because the Arthur Page Center at Penn State is the best idea that’s come along in public relations in the last half century. And if it becomes what you saw the opportunity for it to become, and the thing that others of us on the board see, it’s really, really going to be influential in a very positive way.
Foster: Well we have our work cut out for us and we look forward to it. Thanks again.